Common Causes of Breastfeeding Headaches

Being a new parent is hard, especially when you don't feel your best. Along with the exhaustion that comes with caring for a baby, some breastfeeding parents also experience chronic headaches. It just so happens that headaches can be associated with breastfeeding, causing discomfort at a time when the body is already working hard to recover from childbirth and produce breast milk. Understanding the possible causes of breastfeeding-related headaches can help you treat or prevent them.

1

Hormonal Fluctuations

Mother nursing baby while resting on bed
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In the postpartum period, estrogen levels drop dramatically. At the same time, in the early weeks of breastfeeding, oxytocin and prolactin surge. These hormonal fluctuations may lead to headaches.

This type of headache is sometimes referred to as a lactation headache. These hormone-related headaches may resolve after a few weeks, but they could continue until you wean your child.

Treatment

If you are dealing with headaches while you're nursing your baby, talk to your doctor. Over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) may provide some relief that's safe for you and your baby and allow you to continue breastfeeding.

Prevention

It is not possible to prevent hormone-related headaches, but as hormone levels stabilize, these headaches may resolve on their own. 

2

Breast Engorgement

A headache can also develop if your breasts become engorged. Engorged breasts become hard, swollen, and overfull. The swelling may even extend into the armpit. If untreated, engorgement can sometimes lead to a breast infection called mastitis. One of the symptoms of mastitis is overall body aches, which can include headaches. 

Treatment

Feed your baby or pump your breasts to relieve engorgement. Between feedings, a cold compress may relieve pain and swelling.

Prevention

Try to stay ahead of engorgement as much as possible by breastfeeding or pumping often. Feeding your baby on demand, instead of on a schedule, can help prevent engorgement. Engorgement usually dissipates as your breast milk supply adjusts to meet your baby’s demand.

When to Call Your Doctor

If your headache is accompanied by a fever, redness on the breast, or body aches, be sure to contact your doctor as this could be a sign that you have a breast infection, which may require medical treatment.

If your symptoms include fever and seizure, seek medical attention right away, as this could be a sign of an infection that has spread to the blood (called sepsis), which is a medical emergency.

3

Dehydration

If you don't take in enough fluids through the foods you eat and beverages you drink, you can become dehydrated, which can lead to irritability, exhaustion, dizziness, and, yes, headaches. Since breastfeeding requires extra fluids, try to remember to drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated.

Treatment

While breastfeeding, it's especially important to stay hydrated. When you get a headache, try drinking a glass of water first to see if your symptoms subside.

Prevention

Drink lots of unsweetened fluids, especially water, and eat plenty of water-containing foods, like fruit and soup. Keeping a glass of water nearby the place where you most commonly breastfeed can remind you to drink when your baby drinks. 

While some claim that lactating people should significantly increase their fluid intake, research does not support it. Most nursing parents meet their daily requirements by listening to their bodies and drinking when they feel thirsty. 

4

Low Blood Sugar

It’s easy to miss meals when you are sleep-deprived and busy caring for a new baby, but eating regular, balanced meals is especially important when you are breastfeeding. If you don't eat enough, your blood sugar levels can drop, which can cause headaches. While forgetting to eat as a new parent is common, be sure to pay attention to changes in your appetite as they may be a sign of postpartum depression (PPD).

Treatment

Have a filling snack. Foods that contain fiber and protein can help you feel full longer.

Prevention

Breastfeeding requires extra calories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that breastfeeding parents get 450 to 500 extra calories per day while breastfeeding. Try to maintain a well-balanced diet by eating at least three meals a day, along with a variety of healthy snacks. 

5

Fatigue

Lack of sleep and exhaustion can contribute to the onset of a headache. Giving birth is strenuous and taking care of a newborn at all hours of the day and night is exhausting. New parents are often tired and sleep-deprived, so it’s no wonder fatigue is so common in the postpartum period.

It’s important to keep in mind that fatigue may also be a sign of postpartum depression. If you have other signs of PPD, be sure to tell your doctor.

Treatment

Take a nap if you can. If your doctor has approved over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, they may offer some relief, as well. 

Prevention

Try to nap when your baby is sleeping, and get help with household tasks. You may be able to ward off the headaches simply by getting more rest.

6

Eye Strain

Since it can be hard to hold a book while breastfeeding, some parents read on a tablet or smartphone while their baby nurses. But spending too much time looking at the screen of your computer, tablet, or smartphone can tire your eyes and cause a headache.

Treatment

Shut down screens and close your eyes for a while, if possible. The American Optometric Society recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away. Turning down the brightness of your screen may also help.

Prevention

Get enough rest, take frequent breaks from screens, and limit your screen time to reduce the strain on your eyes and help prevent headaches. If you continue to get headaches from eye strain, see your eye doctor. You may need glasses or a prescription change.

7

Muscle Strain

Breastfeeding can cause soreness and pain in the neck or upper back, and this kind of strain commonly leads to headaches. Looking down at your baby, maintaining an uncomfortable position for a long time, and holding your baby in an awkward position can all lead to back and neck pain. 

Treatment

Pay attention to the strain and discomfort, and don’t ignore it. Shift your position and get up and stretch. If your doctor recommends OTC pain relievers, these may help, as well.

Prevention

Getting a massage and establishing a habit of daily stretching can help keep your muscles loose and relaxed. Experiment with different breastfeeding positions and supportive objects like nursing pillows.

Unrelated Conditions

There are plenty of things that can lead to headaches that may not be directly related to breastfeeding. Things like allergies, hay fever, and sinus infections can cause pain and pressure in your head. Viral and bacterial infections, migraines, and other chronic headaches are all examples of headaches that are not related to breastfeeding but can just as easily affect a breastfeeding parent.

You can also develop what is known as a spinal headache if you had an epidural or a spinal block during delivery. If some of the fluid in your spine leaks out during the anesthesia process and the level of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in your body goes down, it can cause a headache.

In most cases, no treatment is necessary, and your headache should resolve on its own with rest and fluids. However, if it continues for longer than a day, your doctor may perform a procedure to help relieve the pain.

Treatment

Talk to your doctor about your headaches. They may be able to help you find medications that are safe to use while breastfeeding and that are not likely to decrease milk supply.

Prevention

Preventing headaches isn’t always possible, but depending on the condition, sometimes there are measures that can help. Avoid known allergens to reduce allergy-induced headaches, and use good hand hygiene to avoid contracting germs that lead to viral or bacterial infections.

If you're getting headaches more often than you did before your baby was born, or if you're experiencing headaches of greater intensity than you previously experienced, call your doctor.

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9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Riordan J, Wambach K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2014.